In the last few of the 20-odd years Jackie Hague spent at candy company Mars, she was the seasonal business director. It was an experience that came in handy when, in 2008, she jumped ship to become vp, marketing of the New England Confectionary Co. In business since 1847, NEC is the oldest multiline confectioner in the U.S. NEC makes Mary Janes, the Clark bar and Necco wafers — but it’s best known for its crunchy, heart-shaped Sweethearts, the candies that come in a variety of pastel colors and carry sentimental sayings such as “Be Mine,” etc.
In Hague, the company was looking for a strategy that would help Sweethearts both seek a younger audience and expand its appeal beyond Valentine’s Day. Hague recently spent some time on the phone with Brandweek to talk about how she pulled this particular candy caper off by launching an iPhone/Twitter app and updating those sugary sayings.
Brandweek: Sweethearts have always been popular, but pretty much only around February 14th and with a certain age group. How did you break out of those confines?
Jackie Hague: I wanted to relaunch the Sweethearts brand and bring it to other generations. It was really very much of the baby boomer generation and had not really built relevance with teens, tweens and younger moms. So one of the things I did was seek out a partnership to get teens and tweens engaged — they are really the largest consumers of confections — and align with the equity of the Twilight [motion picture] franchise. We got that partnership before the first movie hit the marketplace, and we created custom products based on the story. Stephanie Myer [author of the Twilight books] actually wrote the phrases [on the candies] for us.
What was the response?
Very good. It was interesting to see how fast kids jumped on them and tried them and really liked them or didn’t like them. But just the fact that they were talking about Sweethearts was wonderful, and Facebook pages began popping up. You know you have a successful product when [boxes are] showing up on eBay for $37 a pop.
You said you signed on before the movie’s release. The film, of course, was a blockbuster. How did you know it would catch on?
Because I know everything [laughs]. I actually know about it from being in touch with teens and tweens and really caring about what goes on in the marketplace. I knew that it was out there and was going to be a film property. I knew it was one of the hottest book properties ever. I also knew that it would [appeal to] younger moms.
Did you tie in with the sequels, too?
We’re actually contractually tied in with all the sequels [including] New Moon. And after Valentine’s Day, we have Fire and Ice [candies] coming out. Fire is [based on Taylor Lautner’s werewolf character] Jacob, and it’s fire because he’s the hot wolf, and the Sweethearts give off heat when you eat them. And Ice is Edward, and he gives off coolness. Kids really like strong flavors.
What else is hot with teens right now?
Well, Wiis are really hot. Boys are into their Call of Dutys and their Xboxes, and their iPod Touches are really hot. Of course, all kids want an iPhone, but their parents aren’t willing to get them one so that’s why the iPod Touch is hot. They’re communicating a lot to each other. That ties back to the Sweethearts brand. [Exchanging the candies] is actually the ultimate instant message and about sharing the messages. We actually asked kids and moms to tell us what the phrases [printed on the candies] should be. For 100 years, we’ve been telling them, so [now] we said, “You tell us.” It was interesting to see that the phrases that came back were all based on texting and Facebook messages. The top 10 phrases tied back to that message.
Did you get any obscene and inappropriate responses from consumers as well?
We screened them for that. There was a filter to screen them, but the top ones were “text me” and “love bug,” which is tied to the Jonas Brothers.
If you’re going after teens, I wonder why you’re launching a Twitter app. That seems to trend more to older consumers.
It’s tweens and young mothers. Actually, what came back from all the groups was that “tweet me” was one of the top phrases. Texting is more teen-oriented, but tweet me was more for young moms. That’s another group we really want to be relevant to.
What about your Memorial Day tie-in. That doesn’t seem to have a lot to do with teens.
That one gets me choked up. That’s Red, White and You, and it’s about putting 13 incredibly relevant phrases out to say thank you to the troops. The flavors are a stronger fruit flavor, and the phrases are “thank you” “I [heart] the U.S.A.” and “U.S.O.,” which was one of our partners.